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Karen's Perspective on Traveling Alone

Thailand: Winter 2006

Andrea has graciously agreed to send this out to all of you and it seems fitting to begin 2006 with an email to my dearest friends who I hold in such esteem. In short, Thailand rocks and this trip is already exceeding my expectations.

I arrived in Bangkok after a horrible flight from Toyko with the harrowed American woman with 2 bratty kids behind me the whole 10 hours. Hubby was somewhere 10 rows up , sleeping I'm sure while his darling girl watched continuous reruns of some Disney show and could not contain her delight but was singing and exclaiming and then whining LOUDLY in the 2 minutes of dead time between videos. Mind you this was a night flight and everyone else on the plane was either sleeping or watching a movie quietly. I wanted to tell the mom that I am a sleep expert and that in a case like this with a child of this temperament it's best to tranquilize then just like they do the dogs on board. I literally turned around twice and complained to her and her mother to no avail. Shouldn't they have a special section for potential child abusers like me on long international flights??

Anyhoo, Alison had recommended an excellent hotel where I collapsed upon arrival and woke the next morning to down the mandarin juice from her favorite street vendor. It's fun to imagine me walking in her footsteps as I made my way to the river (Chao Praya) and the exploration of the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. The sacred "emerald" Buddha which is made of jade is there and Wat Pho is the site of a stunning enormous reclining Buddha as well as many standing and sitting ones. Even non-Buddhists can feel the power of the sacred in the wats (temples) and the devotion of the saffron robed monks and devotees who come to make merit and pay their respects. I personally find the reclining Buddhas the most appealing as I like a religious image who has the sense to lie down sometimes.

I ended up in a night market that night and decided to mix it up by eating at an Indian restaurant where I was the only non-Indian and was immediately taken under the wing of some of the touring folks who came to explain the live music being played. When I asked the woman if she would dance with her husband she wryly observed that they were Brahmim and only Punjabi would dance to the music - Anuja, I was thinking of you...

So far, even more than Mexico, I can manage to strike up a conversation almost anyplace I go, especially wih any nearby diners. On the Sky Train over to see a famous teak house in Bangkok, I met 2 docents at the Asian Art Museum who were on their way for an art tour in Burma. They convinced me to visit Angwor Wat in Cambodia (although I didn't need much) so that's where I'm headed in the next day or so. At the same Jim Thompson teak house who almost single handedly revived the silk trade here in the 60's, I heard a woman from the neighboring table call my name. Turned out it was Victoria, the ex-wife of the infamous Christoph whose house we just added to the cohousing empire. Not that was a little freaky...

After 2 days in Bangkok, I was ready to leave the craziness of 6 million people for a quieter ambience and took the train to Ayutthaya (sp?) which I adored. This was the capital of Thailand from around 1500-1766 when Burma sacked the city and it has the eerie grandeur of a bygone era with all the conveniences of the present. I thought of my biking partners as I sweated on a one speed for 6 hours, birdwatching along the way and wearing myself out but seeing a wat an hour and enjoying the distinctive nature of each one as they seemed to outdo the previous in their splendor and inventiveness. By the time I reached the last one I optioned out for the tuk tuk back to the hotel, something none of my die hard biking buddies would ever consider I'm sure but thank the goddess I did as I was taking a train to the national park of Khao Yai. I met 2 Canadians from Montreal and we waited for the train but then it was every North American for themselves in the mad rush to try and find a space to squeeze into as it was the start of the Thai New Year (which is 3 days long). Forget about getting a seat. At first I sat on my backpack in the middle of the aisle and acted like I was incapable of understanding the pantomime of folks trying to get me (and my big ass American pack) out of the way. I didn't understand the tradition that someone would be coming down the aisle every 10 minutes selling drinks and food and I was clearly a liability. No one in my car spoke English and I could tell this would be one very long 3 hour train ride. I flashed on the 5 or so worst train/bus ride experiences in my travel days and imagined that this could equal those. I was tempted to just put on the CD Walkman and try to escape but it just seemed so downright rude and arrogant as folks clearly were curious about me. I reached way down for the travel survival skills I had learned somewhere and decided to make this a game to pass the time. I tried saying several Thai words from my book and the folks around me corrected me with howls of laughter. I pantomimed more in those 3 hours than I thought was possible, danced and sang and generally made a good name for our people. So much so that the woman across the way who I had told I was a "dee" (femme in Thai) propositioned me by writing her number on my hand and making it clear she was "alone." I think she wanted me to pay her for sex but I'm not completely clear on that small detail...

The next day was my birthday and certainly will be one of the highlights of the trip. I joined a tour with the top naturalist/birder at the national park and our group included 2 women biologists from Humboldt, 2 women who work for the BBC (one of them is Vietnamese), the sweet couple from Montreal, a single American woman who teaches chemistry in Singapore, a Frenchman married to a Hungarian who works for Renault in South Korea and has traveled all over the world--a regular polyglot except for too many Americans but one of those congenial group experiences where you want to be friends by the end of the night. We started off the day by immediately seeing parakeets, followed by sighting after sighting of the great hornbill, a remarkable bird with a wingspan of 3 feet (if I'm converting the meters right). Then our guide divided us into 2 groups for the trek and it was just me and the Humboldt nerds with the top gun for the next 2 hours where we saw a HUGE black squirrel, many gibbons (tailess monkey), a white collared kingfisher that would have made Nancy swoon, the flame backed woodpecker and lots of smaller stuff like horned spiders and fungus and orchids that had the biologists in heaven. Later at night we spotted 2 elephants of the 200 in the park (only 2000 in Thailand including the domesticated ones) and a porcupine. We apparently had an exceptional day (even though I must admit I held out the hope we would see one of the 15 tigers...) and when we returned to our guest house, everyone including all the new guests sang Happy Birthday to me and presented me with a cake. It was one of the most memorable birthdays I've ever had--right up there with my 40th. I felt generous being able to buy my group's dinner and Thailand really is the place to celebrate a birthday as the tour for me and dinner and beer for 8 set me back $25.

Yes, one can travel dirt cheap in this country and the quality of the accommodations and food can be quite high. Just today I had a nice chicken and veggie rice lunch for 75 cents. It's almost embarrassing at times.

But one can also spend a lot more which is what I did yesterday. Oh yes, I continued celebrated the birthday pamper with a 2 1/2 hour spa "treatment" with Thai massage, herbal scrub and bath and pedicure....all for $50....in a hotel somewhat like the Claremont resort.

For New Year's I hung out with an extended Thai family who own a very large and successful lodge near the park. It's almost all a family of women as the mother lived in the US for 5 years and speaks pretty good English and her daughter speaks fluent English and is taking over the business from her mom at some point. They are all delightful and I will hopefully help them get written up in the guidebooks, etc as their clientele in almost exclusively srich folks from Bangkok and they would like more English speakers. They gave me plenty whiskey and I sang karaoke with 2 of the sisters (There's a Kind of Hush...) The best part was that I could drift away to sleep at 10pm at a nearby lodge with no karaoke and only the faint sound of fireworks that woke me briefly at midnight.

Well folks, that's alllllll for now and if you've read all tbis you are a real trooper or tired of the cold rainy Bay Area weather and living vicariously. And yes, the weather is perfect. I'm in shorts at the moment with my shoes placed outside before entering the Internet shop (you gotta love that).

I miss you all (really I do!) but I do love this single pilot thang.

Travel Broadens the Mind .....and it also stretches the heart

I made my way overland from Thailand to see the famed Angor Wat, perhaps the most signoficant ancient temple complex in SE Asia. The trip overland of 150 km took 4 hours on dirt roads and it was disturbing to see the poverty of rural Cambodia with even refugee camps near the border. Most of the shacks were built on stilts and I never got clear on why as this is a dry part of the country--not even many rice fields that I could see. Perhaps it's to keep them away from snakes etc. My context for Cambodia is the movie The Killing Fields and the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot's legacy are everywhere evident as well of course as the secret bombing of the country that Kissinger authorized. Even though Vietnam (with the leadership of the current Prime Minister Hun Sen) liberated the country in 1979, the Khmer Rouge continued to bomb and terrorize people in the countryside until Pol Pot's death in 1998. Between 2-3 million were killed in a country that now numbers 15 million. One of my tour guides lost both his father and brother and even my young tour guide, a 22 year old woman from a family of 10, lost a dear friend when she was about 10 years old when a kid found a live grenade that exploded in his hand.

The maimed are everywhere but the younger generation seems hopeful and are unfailingly warm to tourists of which there are many Koreans, Japanese and Chinese. Europeans are also plentiful with a smattering of Americans and I spent a wonderful evening with a fun Chilean couple who live in Sydney. BTW, I even came out to my first male tour guide as he kept fishing for why and how I could be traveling alone so I told him I was a lesbian and then had to explain what that was as he had no clue. But being a Buddhist, he didn't seem to respond negatively (or was thinking of his potential tip) but was super curious how lesbians had children. Wow, we are a complicated culture to explain in limited English.

I arrived at Angkor Wat in the early morning and it reflects both an accessibility and grandeur that's moving. The wat is completely surrounded by a huge moat and this was the center of Khmer civilization until the capital was moved to Phenom Phen as it was very much better placed for trade routes. The intricate bas relief carvings are magnificent and the whole complex reflects both Hinduism and Buddhism. Statues to Vishnu were replaced later by Buddhas which remain today. When you consider that all the sandstone and laterite (volcanic rock) were brought by elephants from a quarry over 50 kilometers away, the engineering feat rivals that of the Egyptian pyramids or the great pyramids of the Maya.

After 2 days of seeing temples I hired Alann (the woman guide) to lead me and a Brit to see a fairly nearby bird sanctuary. We took a boat ride through the largest fresh water in SE Asia that must rival Lake Superior in size to a marshy area that is home to thousands of open billed storks and the greater and lesser adjutants. an enormous bird that looks like the African jabiru. I also saw dozens of Chinese pond herons (perhaps endemic to Cambodia?)and bee eaters, fish eagles and a beautiful reddish bird called the coukal. The village near the bird sanctuary is a floating village as the inhabitants must move their "houses" up stream when the water rises during the rainy season. Not to my surprise, they use the river as their bathroom and I watched them do our dishes in the river after we ate at one of the houses. Thank god I have a good gut but if I get giardia, I think I'll know where I got it...I even had to humor the English/Trinidadian man Peter and my guide by trying a fried cricket in the old market. I couldn't face eating it with its head on, but plucked it off and then could swallow it--don't worry I have a photo to prove I did it!

Well I haven't written in a very LONG time but only because I've been lazy. I spent a few days along the Adaman coast which is amazing for its limestone outcroppings and great snorkeling. I met a nature resort owner who's a woman with a Phd in sociology who's way interested in starting a cohousing community on one of her many properties. If one of these actually materializes in Mexico or Thailand my long conversations about "community" will be rewarded. Have been getting very close to nature and her amazing diversity as I've spent the last 5 days in a national park that is an evergreen rainforest called Khao Sok. I took an afternoon rafting trip, a night safari, a hard core cave hike and a day long jungle trek and was serenaded at night by the loudest cicadas, frogs and creepy crawlie things imaginable. It was like a nightly chorus out of the Jungle Book I guess with the most amazing diversity of sounds imaginable, even the dogs who actually howled at the full moon. Saw 2 civet cats at night, a chameleon,lots of gibbons, langur and macaques (all types of monkeys). On my rafting trip I saw some great kingfishers and then my guide said something about an elephant. As his English was not too great, I thought he was referring to a time when he had seen an elephant in the area but as I looked back to clarify he was pointing to indicate that the elephant was of the present. I asked him to paddle us closer but he kept saying he was scared! Come to find out, I guess it might have been a domesticated elephant whose trainer had left it in the national park to forage or perhaps it was a wild elephant. Either way, some folks who were gathering wild herbs had been trampled earlier this year so I guess his fear was well founded....but hey, I'm just a city gal who wants some good adventure stories!

The cave hike was truly amazing with about an hour hike through a large cave with plenty of enormous frogs and spiders (the golden orbed ones twice as large as my hand--again, I have the photos...) At one point we had to swim through a section with the water roaring around us. Definitely not for the faint of heart. I was by far the oldest one on the trip and appreciate all my hikes and adventures in preparation for that c'mon ya'll episode.

My guide and cook at the restaurant got a little crush on me and vice versa but his English was so limited that it consisted of him showing me how to make green curry and his herb garden, me swimming with his adorable kid (did I mention that I sat and watched the monkeys (macaques) every morning and at dusk from my riverside jungle bungalow) and him giving me a souvenir key chain. Some of the men here are so soft and gracious that they're quite charming. It was quite sweet though and I felt a pang of sadness when I wished him and the park adieu this am.

I'll be going on a kayaking tour tomorrow in the fairly touristy town of Krabi before catching the plane to Chaing Mai for my last week in the north. I haven't seen many of the places I hoped to explore but there's always a return visit needed....

I received some very sad news since I've been here. My dear friend Ellen Boneparth (who lives in Santa Rosa) was in a horrible car accident and broke her pelvis and 5 ribs. Most disturbing is that she hit her head very hard and alternates between lucidity and memory loss. Her intellect is so important for her that it's hard to imagine that she may never fully recover but she's also got a strong will power and I believe that she will fight as hard as possible. She is still hospitalized in Santa Rosa and I hope to see her soon after my return. The shock of her accident and my sis's upcoming hip surgery in March have really made me appreciate my amazing good health and the luxury of travel. I try and not take this time of freedom and exploration for granted. I also got my first email ever from my dad (from my sis's account) to tell me that his (and really my mom's) dog Missy had died after 17 years. She was always a lapdog for my mom and almost her 4th child.

I have many more stories to tell but you'll just have to come see my slideshow when I return. I love and miss you all!
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